Vipassana Experience - Why I tried a 10-Day Meditation Retreat
Just over three years ago I started exploring Stoic philosophy that seemed to me aligned with challenges of everyday life.
While the Greek and Roman philosophers lived by its rules it has been to a great degree discontinued or partially absorbed and replaced by the emergence of Christianity. While working at Wall Street firm I used the insurance coverage satisfy my curiosity and learn more about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) that was developed by a psychologist inspired by Stoicism.
The 10 “free” sessions ended up being more of an intellectual / theoretical exchange rather than getting a proper technique which was only half satisfactory. The main take-away for me was that Buddhism is probably superior to its European cousin as its methods persevered throughout centuries
The theoretical resemblance of these two schools of thought was striking with Buddhism having an additional religious overlay. At that time I tested Headspace and a couple of apps. I hardly ever finished a session of 10 minutes. I also came to know about Vipassana Experience from a friend at the firm I worked for. It’s also when Senior Executives started talking about mindfulness as part of work life balance.
Vipassana seemed like a good candidate for a trial with centres popping like mushrooms throughout the globe. As a cycling traveller this seemed like a free option (and a good opportunity to take a break from cycling!). 10 days with no expenses getting into something that I was keen to explore (a donation is welcome at the end of the course allowing future students to benefit from the same framework).
Day 1 - Intriguing Start
Location is c. 250 kms from Vancouver in a fairly remote area. Setting is perfect for a meditation retreat. People across social spectrum but there seems to be a natural selection that operated based on general emotional maturity / awareness. I’m quite impressed by quality of the first conversations. The average age is probably in the 30s which I expected it to be higher. I found this promising for the future. Maybe traditional religions are bound for some serious disruption in the next decades.
Simple but relatively good (post Japan!) vegetarian diet that I quickly refined to being fully vegan.
After Day ‘11’ and a visit to the local Wall Mart I realised that the Vipassana Center did an outstanding job given the ingredients that can be found. Facilities are simple and similar to a Western Hostel. I got lucky to get my own room but a dorm seems to be the norm.
When the Vipassana founder implemented this concept for the first time in the West the society has initially been suspicious (with homeless and hungry people all around why you would be offering all this for free. Where is the catch?)
Day 2 - 8 AM, What I am doing Here moment
I knew the rules: No external and internal communication with anyone including glances. No reading or writing materials. No sport activity is permitted. Gender segregation is enforced. You give up your phone on Day 1 which is returned to you on Day 11. I enjoyed the morning. While the gong is rung at 4 Am (!) for a 2 hour meditation I found the session challenging but doable.
Breakfast is delicious and I have a walk in forest on a beautiful sunny day. Marmots and squirrels are running outside the building while the centre still being ring fenced to avoid getting some unexpected bear visitors. But now the good part of the day is over and its only 8am (!) … another 9 hours of meditation and discourses left lasting until 9pm.
I am starting questioning my decision. Last meal is served at 11 am (fruits are available at 5 pm for new students). This framework combined with the fact that you need to mentally work 10 days in a row is enough to put off most of the society. This is far from a vacation retreat. Maybe as the saying on Wall Street goes ‘there is no free lunch afterall’.
Day 4 - The strong determination sessions
The ‘induction’ ended on Day 3 (Anapana breathing technique). The proper meditation starts with from now on 3 one-hour sessions per day where you can’t change your posture.
After the first one I exchange glances with my neighbour (breaking the rules!). We both smile. F*&k. This is hard. After the course my neighbour told me he was convinced I was going to leave after this first session. Before the following session everyone around me built ‘forts’ with cushions to avoid pain. I realise that’s only delaying the moment pain will hit you. The idea must be to learn how to face the pain.
I recalled the image of Buddhist monks burning themselves. I test a few very simple configurations and face a choice : do I ‘destroy’ my butt or my knees? As a cyclist the answer is straightforward!
Days 5 to 9: This is the very individual part where experiences greatly differ
While I heard different feedback about what people got out of the course a fairly objective takeaway list comes to my mind :
- Vipassana teaches you a technique that has worked for centuries. You learn a tool that may be very beneficial. There is no upfront cost involved.
- You learn about yourself, you connect to your body like nothing you’ve experienced so far and understand how sensations interact with emotions
- You learn a lot about Buddhism from a purely practical/experimental perspective. The theory (especially behind stoicism) was something I was fairly familiar with yet I never managed to use it in daily life
- Detachment doesn’t mean not carrying about others
- Meditational rewiring of the brain is actual work that is equal in terms of importance to other development aspects in life such as learning or physical activity
- Vegetarian (or vegan diet for me) works. But I probably won’t be able to drop fish completely
- You can also live on two meals per day (Read more about other takeaways from cycling)
- You can start meditation with Vipassana with no prior experience
- Overall a unique and very rewarding Vipassana experience
Day 10: Re-integration with society
This is a strange feeling. The ‘Noble Silence’ is lifted and you can share experiences and talk to people you have been walking and sleeping by for 9 days. You knew certain of their habits. It is very strange but sometimes you were sure youd like certain people without even knowing them. And talking to them just confirmed it.
Day 11: Re-integration with external world
You getting your phone back. Overflow of information and things that just distract us on a daily basis seem less important once you gain a certain perspective. Nevertheless it’s impossible to shut them off.